‘Development is a process that should begin with strong institutions, not strong men’
Thomas Ofem is a Development and Health Communication practitioner with experience spanning the HIV/AIDS, Reproductive and Sexual Health, Tropical Infections as well as Democracy and Governance sectors. Popularly known as Bob Tee, he is currently the Cross River State representative on the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) National Technical Committee on E-Registration. Ofem, who turns 52 today, is also a leading aspirant for the Cross River Central Senatorial District for 2023. He shares his thoughts on a wide range of national and state issues.
What are the distinctive features of Cross River Central Senatorial District?
There is no other district in the country as endowed as the Central Senatorial District (CDS) of Cross River State. Firstly, Cross River from the western Cameroon enters Nigeria through Etung local council and transverse four additional local councils of the district: Ikom, Obubra, Yakurr and Abi in that order. This body of fresh water that is available throughout the year has enormous potential for the senatorial district – drinking water and irrigation, fisheries, transportation and tourism through water sports and sand beaches.
About 65 per cent of the mineral deposits of Cross River State are found in the Central District and 20 per cent and 18 per cent of these are found in Obubra and Ikom local councils respectively. These solid minerals include barite ore, quartz, felspar, garnet, lead ore, iron ore, pyrite, talc and titanium. Each of these minerals has great commercial use. In addition to being the home of solid minerals in Cross River State, the Central District is the food basket of the state and its neighboring states.
There is an abundance of food crops — yam, cassava, maize, rice and tree crops, including cocoa, coffee, banana, plantain and timber. The Okwango National Park and the Afi Mountain Wildlife Park are the only undisturbed forests in Africa. These natural endowments are what make the Central Senatorial District unique.
From your response, the district is so rich, yet its wealth is not reflecting on the people’s lives. Why is it so?
The logical vision of all well-meaning men and women is a Senatorial District where resources are exploited to improve the living standards and well being of all in the district. Our current situation is far from this vision. Poverty is rife, health indicators especially for women and children are poor, youth unemployment is high, while educational attainment is low. Why is there a difference between the ideal vision and our current situation? This difference I think can be placed squarely on the lack of adequate leadership. Because adequate leadership is lacking, there is actually no shared vision. A lack of shared vision implies a lack of a strategic plan and without a plan, it is impossible to deliberately effect change in the society.
Politically, the leader of the district is the senator. I think past and current senators have focused more on their legislative duties at the national level at the expense of providing real and transformative leadership for the senatorial district. Such transformational leadership is what is needed for the people of the district to forge a common vision, and to implement ongoing strategies and activities to actualise this vision.
Your state was in the news between 1999 and 2014 for good reasons. For example, Governor Donald Duke built Tinapa and started the Calabar Carnival, while Senator Liyel Imoke sustained both and added massive investments in rural infrastructure. So, what went wrong beginning from 2015?
I don’t think something went wrong…what happened was that the Ayade government had different priorities and, in the process, abandoned Tinapa, the Calabar Carnival and the Obudu Mountain race. These investments helped put Cross River State on the world map. But now, there are new projects like the Super Highway, Calasvegas, Calachicken and Cally air. These are all beautiful sounding projects and our state would be better off if these projects leave the drawing board. If Ayade is able to pull his projects off the ground within the short time remaining for his government, Cross River State might just return to the era where the media were constantly discussing our state in glowing terms. If he fails, then he might just go down in history as the worst governor of our state.
How can this be corrected?
The incoming PDP government has no choice than to be as deliberate as it should be prudent. The resources available are meagre, but the new government has the challenge on the one hand of rebuilding trust in governance among the people and continuing with all or some of the projects started by previous governments. After all, governance is nothing without continuity. The new government must as a matter of necessity start with a comprehensive situational analysis that covers all facets of life in the state. It should then clearly identify and define the problems that need attention before prioritising them based on available resources. The new government will not have the luxury of tokenism, or of “stomach infrastructure” — a term that reminds one of everything that has gone wrong with governance in our dear state.
What future do you see for the state?
Cross River State has a bright future. The human and material resources are there. All we need is a 24-year development master plan that successive governments should implement by tweaking here and there as demanded by the exigencies of their time.
Development is a process that should begin with strong institutions and not strong men. I strongly pray that beginning from 2023, every political office holder elected or appointed should focus on building our institutions and repositioning them for service delivery. This way, we would be able to leverage on the abundant human and material resources of the state and deliver the dividends of democracy to our people.
You are aspiring to represent your people at the Senate in 2023. What critical issues would you be addressing in the upper legislative chamber in relation to the country, your state and your senatorial district if elected?
Three critical national issues have great impact on the well being of my senatorial district: (1) Fiscal autonomy for the three tiers of government. (2) Transparent electoral system. (3) State police. If elected into the senate in 2023, I will sponsor and promote bills that enable restructuring of the country in ways that allow states and regions to enjoy a level of autonomy that will help them stay creative, competitive and productive within a more prosperous and just federation. Of critical importance within this context is the idea of fiscal autonomy of the different tiers and arms of government. The Cross River State government should be allowed to generate its revenue and use it for its development, while remitting a pre-agreed per cent to the central government to use for common interests, including defence and foreign affairs.
In the same manner, each local council should be allowed a certain level of control over resources found in its environment. This way, much of the injustices we experience today will be gradually addressed and entirely removed. I am, also, particularly concerned with the issues of state police and transparent elections. No nation can develop properly amid insecurity and opaque electoral system. The leadership of the Central Senatorial District should contribute to securing and keeping the peace of the district.
Maintaining a state police force is one-way stakeholders in the state can work with the people to ensure that the state is secured. I will support efforts that are meant to institute a state policing system as well as efforts to improve transparency and credibility of elections at all levels. For example, the position of State Police Chief should be up for elections every four years in the same way as the governor is elected.
What do you think put you in the best stead to get nominated by your party, and eventually win the election in 2023?
I have taken a careful look at all those who have indicated their interest to contest the Senate position in 2023, and I think, I am the best positioned to carry the party’s flag and eventually win the general elections. Our party is in transition and how we handle this transition would make or mar the party. Some of the names that are cropping up have been around since the formation of the party and have been in and out of government. While the PDP has tried its best to enthrone a viable democracy in Nigeria, the time has come for a new generation of leaders with the responsibility to herald a new way of doing things. As the PDP e-Registration coordinator for Cross River State, I know that the average age of all newly registered PDP members is about 20 years. This means that leadership has to naturally reflect this age for it to be responsive.
Secondly, the PDP at this point needs to energise its career politicians with an infusion of technocrats and professionals to build voter trust and increase the party’s acceptability. I bring to the table freshness, as I have not held a political office before. I also have a 21-year experience designing social and behaviour change programmes in Nigeria and the sub-Saharan African region. I will also bring to the table a bipartisan appeal among voters that will be handy during the general election. None of my opponents can boast of all these solid credentials.
What exactly will you do differently?
Firstly, I will perceive myself as the servant-leader of the Central Senatorial District and not just its senator. This distinction is crucial because of the need for transformative leadership in all aspects of life in the Senatorial District. The idea is not to be the hero, but to be the light, the unifying force that wakes people from sleep, facilitates a much-needed development dialogue, and catalyses district-wide action that will unlock values and potentials. Secondly, I will work with other stakeholders in the district to establish the central senatorial district leadership assembly/group with members drawn from the political class, civil services, traditional institutions and civil society.
This leadership assembly/group will be responsible for championing the district’s vision and galvanising collective action towards achieving this vision. Thirdly, I will serve as the bridge/liaison between the district leadership and critical stakeholders like the federal and state governments, the private sector and international development partners.